Friday, September 14, 2012

Suicide and Seeking Other Permanent Solutions

Trigger Warning:  Suicidal thoughts. If you are feeling suicidal right now, here is a validating website: Suicide: Read This First.

My senior year of college, I had a dorm room directly under the piano in the common room.  Every single time someone played the piano, I had to get up and find someplace else to go.  (I could only ask them to stop after 11:00 pm).  When I told a school counselor, she asked if I could move the piano to a different spot. So I asked my RA if we could move the piano above the bathroom instead, and in no time the problem was solved. I wished I had thought of this solution earlier, but when I told other people about the problem, they acted as if it was no big deal and that nothing could be done to fix it. When you're surrounded by people telling you that you just have to live with something that you're not okay with, it can be hard to see the way out. When I was on vacation with my friend's family last summer, my friend's sister said that a blinking light on the air conditioner was bothering her at night. I began looking for something to cover the light, but no one else even acknowledged what my friend's sister had said. Everyone else expected her to just live with it when there was a very clear and simple solution.

While most people will agree that "Suicide is never the answer," so many people respond to problems with "Get over it," "Live with it," "Toughen up," "Stick it out," or "It's only going to get worse later on." If someone is thinking about killing themself, then they are saying in the plainest way possible that "living with it" is not an option. And if someone is not okay with the way things are now, then why on earth would they want to continue living if things are going to get even worse?

How about, "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." This is a true statement, but answer this question:
Your dorm is so loud that you can never do anything in your room, and this is a very, very big problem for you. You would rather:
a.  Deal with this on a case-by-case basis, searching the campus for a new quiet hideout each day, only to  have to move each time it becomes loud.
b.  Live in a quieter dorm.
We want permanent solutions to problems, including problems that are temporary.  Sure, you'll only be in that dorm for a year, but why would you want to be miserable for that long?  Not all problems are temporary in the first place, but even if they are, the "permanent solution to a temporary problem" expression implies that you would only want a temporary solution, not a permanent one.

So how do we fix these reactions?  Validation.  If someone is suicidal, you should let the person know that you believe there are other solutions and that you will help them reach those solutions. But validation comes in long before a person gets to that point.  It comes in when someone talks about doing something that would solve a problem or make them feel better - quitting school, quitting a job, getting a divorce, etc. and you're supportive of whatever works for them.  It comes in when you take someone's problem seriously and try to help. Because most of the time, people try to be validated before considering suicide. I recently read that students who are "at-risk" for school shootings are not just loners - they're students who have made failed attempts at connecting with other people, students who have tried talking to people who wouldn't listen. A person doesn't become suicidal overnight - it's a culmination of failed attempts at getting people to understand. It matters every time you support someone in fixing a problem.  Even small ones - even just pushing the piano across the floor or hanging a dishtowel over a blinking light make a difference.  These acts tell the other person, "I'm listening, I'm taking your problem seriously, and I'm trying to help you find a solution." And if that person is ever in a bigger crisis, they can trust you to do the same thing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Goal Setting Tips for Different Personalities

I recently read two articles on Psychology Today that show why the recommended methods for accomplishing goals do not take personality differences into account. The first article: Introverts, Extroverts, and Habit Change shows how goal-setting tips aimed at extroverts. The second article: Do You Hate to Hear "No," "Don't," or "Stop?"  is about people who are demand-resistance - who don't want to feel like they have to do things or that they can't do things. People like me.  Here are a few common examples of goal-setting tips:

Suggestion: If you have a goal to exercise regularly, you should get a workout buddy.
Reasons this doesn't work for everyone:
  1. Just as some people aren't always in the mood to exercise, some people aren't always in the mood to socialize.  For some of us, having to get together with a friend would be a reason to exercise less, because we're not always in a social mood.
  2. Not everyone is okay with another person pushing them to do something.  If a friend kept pressuring me to exercise when I didn't want to, we wouldn't stay friends very long.
Suggestion: If you have a goal to read more books, you should join a book club. 
Reasons this doesn't work for everyone:
  1. Reading is an innately solitary activity, and many of us like it because of that. A book club makes reading into a social activity, which is totally different.
  2. Reading is innately pressure-free; in a book club, you have to read what other people tell you to read on their schedule.
I'm not sure there are any goal-setting tips that work for everyone - what works varies based on the individual. The introversion article above gives goal-setting suggestions that work better for introverts. Here is my list of tips for other demand-resistant people:
  1. Understand that a goal can be anything. It doesn't have to be to get better grades or get a particular job. Your goal can be to save enough money to go on spring break, to not miss a single episode of your favorite TV show, or to spend more time having fun. Choose a goal that's what you really want, not what you're told to want.
  2. Write down your goal and why you want to accomplish it.  The "why" helps ensure that it's something you personally want to do.
  3. Understand the reason for your goal: if you want to practice singing every day to get a part in the school musical, and you do get a part, you may want to redirect your efforts to practicing for the musical instead of practicing general singing every day. 
  4. If you want to tell other people about your goal, choose those people wisely.  Don't share with anyone who will tell you what to do, who will put you down if you change your mind, or whom you would feel uncomfortable around if you don't accomplish your goal. 
  5. If you want to do something daily, fit it where it fits.  If you like to read when you wake up in the morning, maybe that's a good time to also write in your journal. If you like to play outside after dinner, maybe that's a good time to also practice for your baseball team tryout.  Work your goal into your schedule rather than working your schedule around your goal.
  6. Decide where this goal is on your priority list. Make sure you treat your goal as important as it is to you, but don't let it prevent you from doing things that matter more to you.
  7. Don't expose yourself to sources of information that make you feel pressured to do things a different way. Some people find it helpful to read about or talk to others who have accomplished similar goals, but if these sources make you feel pressured, don't use them.
  8. Try to make the day-to-day work on your goal more fun or appealing.
  9. Use implicit rewards rather than external rewards. An implicit reward is giving a great performance in the play because you practiced hard. An external reward is saying that if you practice every day for the week, you'll do something fun on the weekend. You could just as easily have fun on the weekend without practicing, and you don't want your goal standing in the way of something that you could normally have. The best goals are rewards in and of themselves when you accomplish them.
These tips may seem odd to the non-demand-resistant, but this is how I have accomplished all of my personal goals. The most advertised solution may not work best for everyone, but when you combine your goal with a little self-knowledge, you'll discover what works for you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What the Timing of Your Updates Reveals

An example; not my stats
A few years ago, I used a Facebook application that gave statistics on when you posted status updates by months of the year, days of week, and time of day. It jumped out at me that most of my posts were during the worst times of the year.  I already knew that I posted less frequently during summer vacation, but my statistics revealed that even during the school year, my posts were heavily centered around finals, midterms, and times of year that just plain sucked.  This factor alone is not necessarily a bad thing - if posting makes you feel better, then it's logical that you would post more when you're not feeling well.  But the other factor that stood out was that I posted more updates when I had less time. When I had time to do things I wanted, I didn't spend time on Facebook - it was a place I went when I didn't have time to do anything else.

Glancing at my blog archive, I can see that there isn't really a pattern based on whether I was feeling good or bad, and that I post more when I have more free time, not less.  Some of the long gaps between posts are for school, but others are for when I was more involved in other things. I had long suspected that posting on Facebook made me feel worse rather than better, and the timing differences alone reveal that I enjoy writing on my blog and that I don't really enjoy posting on Facebook.  If you're questioning whether something you're doing is a good or bad thing for you because it kind of feels like both, look at the timing of when you do it.  Ask yourself: do I do this activity when I actually have time for it, or do I do it when I'm trying to avoid doing something else? You may have your answer.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why We Put Ourselves Down

It's become common to put ourselves down in order to put others up. Instead of simply saying, "You're a great tuba player!" we say, "I could never do that."  Sometimes people will even go on further about how they aren't musically or theatrically or athletically inclined. And while they mean to say, "Your talent is a big deal - it's not something that everyone can do," it is a little strange. For one thing, this isn't necessary - you can easily compliment someone without putting yourself down. I always wonder if people actually feel bad about themselves when they say this. Most of us have the capacity to do a lot of different things, but we've chosen the things we want to do.

Perhaps when a friend does something cool that we aren't doing ourselves, we need to justify why we aren't doing the same thing.  This happens a lot with activities:  If I don't want to do something, I'll usually say that I'm not interested, but many people will say that they're horrible at the activity in question.  Of course, every person who claims that they would suck an activity would probably not suck after doing it for a year. Everyone had to start somewhere.  So is it just more socially acceptable than to say that you would suck at something than to say that you're not interested?  Or do we feel like our friends who do cool things are looking at us and thinking, "How come you don't do anything this cool?"

Maybe some of these self put-downs stem from actual jealousy or feelings of inferiority. But what's interesting about jealousy is that, like the put-downs, saying "I'm so jealous!" has become another way of saying, "I'm so happy for you!"  Not that it's this way all the time - I'm sure people express jealousy as a compliment so that they don't express it in a negative way.  But I have often said, "I'm so jealous," when I didn't feel that way at all. It stopped for me when my college classmates would talk about their cool study abroad programs - I would be about to say, "I'm so jealous," when I realized I couldn't say that when I didn't even apply to study abroad myself. I'm sure a lot of people are jealous and really do want to jump into their friends' suitcases, but I wonder if being jealous has just become a compliment, the same as saying "I could never do that."

The point here is, we don't have to put ourselves down to put other people up, or say we're jealous to let people know that we're happy for them.  Speaking that way could actually start to make us feel bad about ourselves.  Because in truth, your tuba-playing friend isn't looking down on you wondering why you don't excel at the tuba - they're probably thinking that you're a great listener or that you always make them laugh or anything else that makes you you.

Accepting Compliments

Most of us have been taught to say "Thank you" when someone compliments us, but we all have times when we don't really want to accept a compliment.  Maybe someone compliments you on the new haircut that you hate.  Maybe someone praises you for working hard on something that you'd rather not be doing.  But when you just don't think that what you did was worthy of praise, you run the risk of hurting the feelings of the person who complimented you, because what they're complimenting you on might be a very big deal for them to accomplish, even if it's not for you.

When I began writing my first novel, I often brushed off my friends' compliments, saying that I should be much further along than I was.  But while I was consumed in what I was doing, I had forgotten what it meant to everyone else.  I may have been on page 100 at the beginning of the week and on page 104 by the end. So I'd be thinking, "I only wrote 4 pages this week," while everyone else was thinking, "I can't believe you wrote 104 pages!"  Looking back on it, I shouldn't have brushed off the compliments as if writing a book is no big deal.  Especially since I know what's it's like on the other side.

When my college classmates first mentioned getting As on tests and paper, I said, "Congratulations!" or "That's awesome!" But instead of saying thank you, people looked at me strangely, like I had just congratulated them for tying their shoelaces.  It made me feel really bad. Getting an A at the college level was a big deal for me, and my classmates' reactions told me that getting an A was nothing to celebrate - it was just the norm.

So now I try to accept compliments even if something was no sweat or wasn't my best work. Accepting a compliment doesn't mean that you have to be happy with less than your best - it means you appreciate that the person is happy for you and understand that what you did might be a very big deal to them.

Monday, September 3, 2012

False Positive Writing

Have you ever written about something that was very upsetting, and then found yourself feeling upset when you read it again? That's the explanation I've given for deleting my online journal, my old Facebook account, and other things I've written. But the truth is, my most unsettling journal entries are not the ones that are depressing, but the ones that are positive and hopeful, thinking that something would turn out okay when it wasn't okay at all.

It hurts more to see that I thought things would get better when they didn't. I also feel like those positive things give other people the power to refute what I say.  I once said that I would never let anyone read my 8th grade scrapbook (an autobiography project for English class) not because it was private, but because I told everyone that I didn't like my K-8 school, and everything I wrote in the scrapbook is positive. It had to be positive since we had to let everyone in school to read our projects, and I was always afraid that someone who read all the nice memories in my scrapbook would think that I was lying about all the bad things I had said. It's the same way when I find positive entries written about college - I'm afraid someone could use them to deny my convictions.  It makes me wish I had proof, that I had written exactly what was going on in college while it was happening.  I love to have a record of what really happened, but I hate having so many positive entries that turned out not to be true.

For the 8th grade project, all of the happy memories I wrote about were completely true - I just didn't include all of the not-so-happy memories. But all the positive journal entries about college weren't about true  events - they were hopeful, looking towards the future and thinking, I'm gonna like it here. They include a lot of misinterpretations and it's harder for other people to see that.  It's like the difference between someone describing something bad that has already happened to them vs. someone who is on their merry way when you, the reader, know that something bad is about to happen. The second scenario just feels worse.

Writing What You Like

You've probably heard the expression, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."  This is very true in writing, not just in terms of the way you word something, but in terms of how much thought you put into it. I once told a close friend of mine, who is also a writer, that I wasn't sure if I should use a particular idea for a poem because it might sound silly.  My friend told me that it would only sound silly if I treated it like something silly - if I didn't put a lot of thought and effort into it.  This is advice had made me feel much more confident.  Don't worry about your idea or topic not being good enough.  It's not "better" to get inspiration from one source over another - it's what you do with that inspiration that counts.  If you put a lot of thought into a story or topic, it will show, and that's what makes it good.  It's the thought that counts, more than the idea.